THORNDIKE — What was a department of 28 firefighters Wednesday morning became a one-woman operation by the end of the night.

All firefighters but Lauren Carter resigned in protest at a Wednesday evening select board meeting after the town’s elected officials maintained that former deputy chief George Russell should no longer be involved with the department.

Despite ultimately walking out of the meeting, several firefighters maintained that they valued public safety the most.

“It is the safety and security of every citizen in this town and around (that is our No. 1 concern),” said firefighter Shawn Bristol, raising his voice as he spoke. “(This situation) is a slap in the face to every single person who has put our lives on the line.”

Town officials were acting in response to a letter they received at the end of January from the heads of four Waldo County emergency service groups. The letter criticized Russell over a lack of leadership and training, saying he endangered firefighters as well as the Thorndike community and the communities to which Thorndike offers mutual aid. On Friday, the letter was distributed to townspeople, several of whom showed up on Wednesday evening to question the board and firefighters in attendance about the situation.

The letter was co-signed by Ken Clements, president of the Waldo County Firefighters Association, Bill Gillespie, president of the Waldo County Fire Chiefs Association, Dale Rowley, director of the Waldo County Emergency Managment Agency and Owen Smith, director of the Waldo County Communications Center.

Read the letter

The letter cited “out of control” radio usage that blocked the frequency for dispatchers, nonworking equipment and faulty communication with other departments. In one case, Thorndike failed to notify partnering towns that several of its firetrucks were out of service until a major house fire broke out.

The letter also referenced Russell pleading guilty to stealing over $5,000 of department money in 2015. Gillespie later added that Russell “doesn’t have any firefighting certificates,” despite having once held the position of chief.

Russell was demoted to deputy chief after the 2015 court case and formally resigned from that role Friday. Chief Bill Isbister resigned Wednesday morning.

Several members of Thorndike’s fire department, which is not run by the municipality, maintained that their outdated equipment — not Russell — was at the root of the concerns the Waldo County officials outlined in their letter.

Going into the Wednesday meeting, the group was looking for the select board to release $85,000 from the truck and equipment replacement fund to address some of these issues. The “purse strings,”a phrase used by Selectman Bob Carter, remained closed Wednesday night, which contributed to the mass walk-out of over two dozen individuals with ties to the fire department.

In a resignation letter Russell gave to the board, signed as president of the Thorndike Volunteer Fire Company, he attributed the decision entirely to “unsafe working conditions due to outdated and unsafe equipment that the Town of Thorndike Selectman Refuse to replace putting not only the Firefighters lives at risk but the public as well.”

Bob Carter said this “blindsided” the selectmen.

“When the fire department comes into our selectmen’s meetings, after the minutes are approved, usually first thing on agenda is the fire department,” he said. “We go over anything they want, and I’ve yet to see anything we’ve denied. Turnout gear, training materials, equipment — we’ve always (approved the requests). I don’t know where they came up with (the $85,000). We were never asked if we needed a brand new firetruck.”

Prior to the exodus, Bob Carter said he would be open to reconsidering Russell’s role on the fire department if Clements, Gillespie, Rowley and Smith sent another letter asserting that their concerns about Russell had been resolved.

“The biggest thing that struck me about this letter is it came from firefighters about firefighters,” he said. “You don’t hear firefighters (throwing) firefighters or police officers throwing police officers under the bus, you just don’t. And then when you get something like this, you go, ‘OK, what the heck they’d do so bad that this happened?'”

As the conversations escalated — at times resulting in Select Board Chair Larry Ward shouting to keep tempers down and the meeting on course — Bob Carter remained firm with his stance.

“Our lawyers looked at it, (the Maine Municipal Association) looked at it — it doesn’t look good for George, that’s all I have to say,” he noted. “Those four people that wrote that letter — have them write another letter that clears George so he can be on the fire department. Besides that, all we have is what we have in this letter. If they can get us a letter that says something different — but as of right now, this is what we have to deal with.”

April Turner, a Freedom Volunteer Fire Department Auxiliary member, encouraged the Thorndike firefighters to get a new letter from Waldo County officials within two months in order to reach a compromise with the selectmen that would allow for the reconsideration of Russell’s involvement. Freedom is one of the towns that relies on Thorndike for mutual aid.

In an informal address to the board, Turner drew applause from the firefighters for defending the Thorndike department.

“We cannot afford to lose Thorndike fire department,” Turner said. “And if this whole company of men and women walk away because George isn’t able to be part of the fire department, we are losing a huge asset for all of our towns. We cannot look at this and say because of one person, we’re going to lose the fire department. That is not fair to the taxpayers. That is not fair to the neighbors. … Don’t do your town a disservice and lose your firefighters.”

Joshua Ard, a Thorndike resident in the crowd Wednesday, said personnel issues seemed to be trumping the firefighters’ commitment to public safety.

“I think that George is a great volunteer firefighter. I think you all do a great job,” he said. “But my concern here is: What’s your No. 1 concern in the town? Is it being volunteer firefighters or is it protecting George’s reputation?”

Lauren Carter, the only firefighters not to resign in protest, said that she has observed issues with the way the department operates for quite some time.

“It’s extremely frustrating from the inside,” Carter said about her peers quitting the Thorndike department.

She said a trained firefighter who had moved recently to the area from New Jersey was forced out of the Thorndike department for trying to address problems later raised by the Waldo County officers.

“The current leadership of Thorndike (Volunteer) Fire Company actually kicked him out of the fire department for trying to make too many changes, for trying to have training, for trying to have background checks, for trying to do the things the letter said needed to be done is the reason why he was kicked off fire department. (They’d say:) ‘This is Thorndike. We don’t do things this way.’”

Trafton, the sheriff, who is also a Thorndike resident, recommended that the town consider having the municipality run the department and put such an article on the town warrant for a vote.

“Your proposal exactly mirrors the advice of our legal counsel and the Maine Municipal Association,” Ward told Trafton. “That’s what everybody’s telling us.”

Thorndike’s Town Meeting is scheduled for Saturday, March 16. Bob Carter said it would not be feasible to get an article on the town warrant before that date.

Instead, he said, the selectmen would need to create an ordinance, hold a public hearing and either convene a special town meeting or wait for next year’s regular Town Meeting to hold a vote on creating a municipal fire department.

Meg Robbins — 861-9239

[email protected]

@megrobbins

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